Labour’s election then re-election of Jeremy Corbyn was the equivalent of a suicidal man who, when the noose snaps and gives him a second chance, decides to throw himself off a cliff instead. The Liberal Democrats are too small to get a hearing. The Scottish nationalists will speak only for Scotland. The only arguments that matter in England now are the arguments within the right.
But what is the right today? What does it mean to say you are right-wing? You only have to look at the triumph of Donald Trump to guess the answer. He not only beat Hillary Clinton but the old Republican party, which looks like it is close to disappearing now.
The same battles are being fought and victories won across Europe. Austria’s Freedom Party, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the UK Independence Party, Hungary’s Fidesz, Poland’s Law and Justice, like Donald Trump himself, oppose globalisation, free trade and international cooperation of any kind. Some promise strong welfare states, but for natives only. Crucially, like the communists of the 20th century, they are all in Russia’s pocket to varying degrees. The left-wing fellow travellers with Stalin have been replaced by the right-wing fellow travellers with Putin. Anne Applebaum calls them ‘the populist international’ whose success will destroy Nato and the very idea of ‘the West’. German ministers prefer ‘the authoritarian international’.
Whatever the name, the point is that they are a world away the traditional right of the 20th century, and not only because they do not believe in free markets. European Christian democracy at its best displayed the power of the Catholic conscience. French Gaullists believed in the power of the now despised experts to order society. And British conservatism? What did it believe in?
As I said in the Observer at the weekend it once subscribed to a comforting story about Britain that was not wholly a lie.
Unlike the continentals, it ran, the sensible British did not have the guillotines of the French Revolution or the terrors of Nazi Germany and communist Russia. We believed in gradual change, the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the sovereignty of parliament, not totalitarian theories with genocidal consequences.
Many conservatives still do. But how many? The Brexit campaign might have been a traditionalist conservative fight against foreign interference in our affairs. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove insisted they were liberal conservatives not anglicised versions of Marine le Pen, after all. At the start of the referendum campaign Matthew Elliott, Vote Leave’s director, promised a ‘positive’ and ‘internationalist’ vision for Britain. We do ‘not need to focus on immigration’, added Dominic Cummings, his campaign director. The essential task was ‘to neutralise the fear that leaving may be bad for jobs and living standards’.
All of them then switched from traditional to authoritarian right-wing tactics, and began screaming about the millions of Turks about to descend on Britain. They did it because they realised that the race card was the card that would bring them victory. Trump was sincere in praise of the Brexit campaign. For he learned from its tactics, and repeated its ominous success.
Those tactics show no sign of changing. I have seen my less curious colleagues – the blunter tools in the Spectator woodshed – complain about liberals reacting with hysteria to right-wing attacks on the judiciary as ‘enemies of the people’. In the new world it was not hysterical. It showed us that British conservatives were willing to forget all the pieties they uttered about the independence of the judiciary. They would use the language of the European dictators they affected to despise, and imitate Trump by attacking judges for doing their job.
If it were just the Mail and the Sun, few would have cared. But the fact that Theresa May and Liz Truss had to be all but forced to defend a basic principle of the English constitution told us that they could feel the seductive power of the authoritarian right too.
I think they will go on to exploit it for three reasons.
First because you can search the right-wing press in vain for articles condemning, say, Nigel Farage’s plans to lead a demonstration to the Supreme Court. Once conservatives would have regarded it as a mob intimidating Her Majesty’s Judges. Now if they still think such thoughts, they keep them to themselves.
Then there is the strange position of Theresa May herself. You only have to listen to her grubby speech at the Spectator awards to realise that our new prime minister is a bit of a yob. You need to remember as well, because Ukip and the right of her party won’t have forgotten, that she supported Britain staying in the EU. Any sign of weakness on her part will be met with cries of treason. So she must double down and strike ever more authoritarian poses. The more so because Brexit is bound to drag on for years and is bound to end in disappointment.
As Bloomberg said of May’s failed attempt to build new trading relations with India earlier this week:
May flies back to London disappointed and chastened. It was painfully visible on her trip that post-Brexit Britain still hasn’t learned that it no longer carries the economic heft to win deals on its own terms. And until Britain works out what sort of economy it intends to be, nobody is going to be interested in investing in its future either.
There will be hundreds of failures like that in the years ahead. What is the British right going to do? Admit it misled the electorate when it promised them it could have Brexit without pain? Of course not. Conservatives will blame the foreigners, the EU, the civil service, the Bank of England, the judges, the ‘elite’ and the ‘establishment’, as the authoritarian right is doing across the democratic world.
Why shouldn’t they? As Trump has just proven in the most spectacular fashion, blaming everyone else works.